Fri, Jan 13, 2006
Driving from San Jose at 3a, we arrived at Red Lake around 7a. We knew there was no official Snow Park at Red Lake and didn't know if we'd be able to start from there - the alternative at the Hope Valley Snow Park being several miles more each way. Thankfully the area near Red Lake was plowed, and not finding any signs prohibiting our parking there, we pulled in and made preparations to start our day.
Shortly after 7:15a we set out along the road heading south. Snowmobile tracks had packed the snow firmly, making for very easy going those first few miles. We watched the sun rise on the Carson Range to the northeast as we made our way along, a steady wind dogging our way from the start, only to grow steadily worse as the day went on - at least the sky was mostly cloud-free and the sun would help offset some of the chills imposed by the wind. After an hour we passed a sign indicating Forestdale Creek. A quick check of our map indicated this was our turnoff. We found a snowmobile track heading off in that general direction which we dutifully followed. While snowmobile tracks undoubtedly make it easier to travel over unconsolidated snow, they have a downside in that they don't always take the lowest-energy path along a contour, and they don't always necessarily go anywhere. Such was the case of the tracks we followed for the next 20 minutes, following them up and down and around the trees until we concluded they were made by a rider out for a joyride, not actually trying to get somewhere. The cross-country travel was harder over the virgin snow, but the freeze-thaw cycles were enough to make the upper part at least partially crusty, keeping us from sinking in more than three to four inches. Tiring work, but not enough to impede progress.
We turned south again at the West Fork of the Carson River, not a trivial navigational task without a clear view through the forest and without a GPS. As we followed this long side canyon up towards its southern end, the trees dwindled and we had a panoramic view of the jagged peaks making up the Sierra Crest at the end of the canyon. We had some difficulty at first determining which was The Nipple, but after studying our map again, Matthew was able to correct my initial misjudgement and set us on the right course for the peak's North Ridge. We passed a few lone trees on our way to a shallow saddle where we gained views of both Markleeville and Jeff Davis peaks. Snowmobile tracks criss-crossed over the saddle, a popular shortcut between this valley and the larger Hope Valley to the east. The tracks stopped where the North Ridge grew steeper, and it was not without modest difficulty that we were able to pass an icy section and gain the easier slopes above to the summit.
It was just after 10:15a when we reached the summit, and we considered our three hour ascent time a fairly good omen for the rest of the day's objectives. The wind was blowing stiffly from the south, and where we were protected while climbing the North Ridge, we were now in the full face of the icy blast. We climbed the easy summit plug making up the prominent nipple seen from a distance, signing into the register hurriedly before descending and huddling on the leeward side of the formation. The views were really quite grand in all directions, the snow making the surrounding Wilderness far more foreboding than it appears in the summertime. There were more than a dozen easily recognized peaks on three sides, and it was only the peaks far to the south that we could not identify.
We headed off the southeast side of the peak, taking the most direct line towards Jeff Davis Peak a few miles to the east. Fortunately the slope was easy to negotiate (being the standard route up in the summer), and in less than ten minutes I was well down and into the more protected areas below the east side of the crest. Matthew was a bit slower in following, having lost my tracks at one point, then back tracking a short way to find where I had made my way back down to the trees. We crossed Blue Lake Road, another heavily used snowmobile route, where a stop sign stuck up ludicrously from the snow alongside it. As if to mock me, two snowmobiles zoomed by while I waited at the stop sign for Matthew to catch up again. We headed up the easy slopes towards Jeff Davis, arriving at the base of the formation just before noon.
Most of the huge summit plug was snow free, likely due to the vertical nature of most of it in combination with its exposure to the wind. We took off our snowshoes and left them with our poles at the base while we went about figuring out how to climb the thing. The plug is about 100ft high and most sides, while not exactly overhanging, are darn close to vertical. The rock is volcanic in nature, and consequently not very solid, so it is unlikely that much climbing has been done on it other than the standard route from the south. Matthew had been to Jeff Davis before, but turned back on his summertime solo effort when he deemed a rope more appropriate for the stiff class 4 route. We had some trouble identifying the start - or rather Matthew had forgotten just where he'd gone up - and we wandered about the south side checking it all out before deciding we had several options. We climbed a short class 3 section which led to some loose class 2 junk which led up to the start of the crux class 4 section. This 40-foot section was not very appealing. There were plenty of knobs that would make this a cinch on more solid rock, but it was unnerving to find that not all of them were solid. Heading up first, I decided a slow and cautious approach would be necessary. I clung to three holds at a time, assuming anyone of which might give way and require me to recover with the other two - if two happened to give way, that would have been the end of the matter. I headed up the near-vertical section following the main crack which offered some handjams and felt more reassuring than the knobby holds. I was fortunate (and thankful) that none of the knobs broke off on me, though one did let go from under Matthew in his turn. I climbed up to a large boulder that had three rap slings around it, settled myself in and called to Matthew to start up. The small alcove I squatted in had no solid place to rest, and I found my hands breaking off crumbly pieces as I tried to steady myself against the walls. I felt bad knocking pebbles and sand down on Matthew, even calling out "Rock!" several times as larger pieces the size of marbles went down. Why he didn't curse me out, I can't say.
From the small alcove, it looked like I could crawl through a hole in the back of it rather than trying to shimmy up the dicey wall just outside. Matthew confirmed with our route beta that this was indeed the way to go. As I turned to crawl up it, the axe in my pack struck the ceiling and a 10-lb piece of dirt and rock came down on my hand. I let out a small scream as my first impression was that the cave was collapsing upon me. My hand smarted, but the insulated leather gloves I was wearing saved them from any serious harm. Without further incident I wriggled up through the rocks and came out on a wide ledge, without any apparent way to go from there. When Matthew joined me, we once again consulted the route beta which confirmed what looked like our best option - up a 15-foot squeeze chimney. The crack was so narrow it didn't look possible to get ourselves up it. I left my pack on the ground and squeezed through the bottom opening before being able to stand up inside the crack. It looked a bit daunting, but I soon realized that it was so narrow it would be almost impossible to fall in it. Matthew asked if we should bring the rope up for a rappel, but I told him it seemed pretty safe. To prove the point I suspended myself by my shoulders between the two walls while my feet dangled below me. After I made my way up I paused to take a few pictures of Matthew in his effort. From the top of the crack it was an easy climb up to the summit.
It was 12:45p when we reached the top amidst a ferocious wind. We had been partially protected from the wind during the hardest parts, but once we reached the top we got a taste of its full fury. We could stay at the summit only a few minutes. I perused the register dating back to 1985, noting ours was the only entry in any of the months from November through June. The peaks was not only not climbed in winter, it wasn't climbed in spring and hardly at all in the fall. We took pictures in a hasty fashion and beat a retreat back down. At the rock with slings attached, we broke out the rope, choosing to rappel rather than downclimbing the crux. The rappel was great fun.
After we regained the base and put on our snowshoes, we headed north along the crest joining Jeff Davis to Markleeville Peak. While technically the easiest of the three peaks, Markleeville was also the highest and our tired bodies protested on the entire drive to the summit. The wind was absolutely howling. Matthew lost his cap while trying to add more clothes. Not far from the summit, I dropped a down mitten while putting on another jacket and watched the wind fling it down the eastern slope of the summit. I ran after it, and luckily it had snagged on a piece of wind-blown ice to save me a good quarter mile chase down the hill. Matthew had caught back up to me as I got back to where I'd dropped my pack and started for the summit just ahead of me.
It was 3p when we reached the last of our three summits. The top was broad, rounded, and covered in snow. Having no clue where to look, we made no effort to dig for a register. The wind was blowing fiercely, as much as 40mph by our amateur guesses. We took a few quick photos and started down. I headed NW off the summit, figuring I'd shoot for the quickest route down to Charity Valley and Blue Lakes Road below. I hadn't bothered to look closely at the topo to determine we were heading down one of the steeper sides. The slope grew a bit spicy for snowshoes and Matthew hesitated while he watched me pick my way through some rocky sections as I lowered myself towards a chute whose slope we could not see fully from above. At this point I was glad we had lugged our crampons and axes along, and I wasted little time in switching footgear. Above, Matthew took a seat and started to do the same. When I had my snowshoe-laden pack reshouldered, I started down, tentatively at first, but soon taking deep plunge steps in what turned out to be ideal snow for such a descent. No cliffs were encountered, and in only a few minutes I was safely below at the broad runout. Matthew was another ten minutes in coming down, and eventually we took a short break in the trees to get out of the wind and give Matthew a chance to switch back to his snowshoes.
In Charity Valley we came across a gorgeous home of recent construction that stood upon a small knoll in the valley among a small group of trees. It had a sweeping view of the Sierra Crest to the west, Round Top rising above all from behind the crest. Everything was winter white, with a smooth blanket across the whole meadow. It seemed hard to imagine a more idyllic home than this one. As we headed west across the valley, it was now 4p and the sun was dropping ever lower in the west. In the two additional hours that it took for us to return, we watched the sun set and a full moon rise as darkness set in. There was sufficient light from the moon to guide our return without headlamps, and I enjoyed the landscape even as the temperature dropped and our extremities grew quite cold. I paused periodically to take timed exposure shots of the moon and moonlit peaks. It took a good five minutes for my fingers to recover from the exposure when I removed my mitten to take a shot.
We were back at 6:15p, an eleven hour outing that had turned out remarkably well despite the winds. With an approaching storm, this turned out to be the only successful day we had all weekend - but thankfully it was enough to make the weekend memorial.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: The Nipple - Jeff Davis Peak - Markleeville Peak
This page last updated: Sat Aug 2 20:33:08 2008
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